An Interview with Sydney Paul: The Importance of Working in Her Local Community
So, you went to school in Chicago but decided to come back to the USVI, why is that?
I was inspired to work on a project in the USVI - on the impact of calypso music on USVI politics. So I came back to make this short film, but as a person just out of school. I got the opportunity to work with my uncle, a Senator at the time, in his office doing research and communications. The longer I worked at the legislature, the more I learned about the community’s concerns. I felt for the community, and I wanted to do something about that. I thought, well, there's a way that we can talk about these issues and find solutions, and then I got more frustrated that there weren’t a lot of young people like myself who were at home at the time.
I thought to myself, “I came back, and I’m still here because I think that I can make a difference.” I believe that we should be the people that are providing solutions and being innovative. We should give young people who have new and fresh ideas the opportunity to present them. So, because I felt strongly about that, I started a podcast to talk to the people in the USVI about ideas we had that could be presented to the government, the private sector, or the nonprofit community about homelessness or education or diversifying our economy. I have these conversations with my friends all the time, why not provide a platform for us to talk about it and put these ideas out there?
Through my journalism career, I’ve met a lot of people from the Caribbean that feel the same way, so that’s what’s kept me here. From working at the legislature, I just felt more connected, and I felt a responsibility to my community because I live here, and I’m here to be a part of the solution.
You mentioned meeting with Peter Chapman and Aminah Saleem to talk about the RTPark - what made you decide to join the organization?
I was reading the Industries of the Future by Alec Ross, and I didn’t know much about the RTPark at the time. Our conversation was just about ‘what’s kept me at home,’ ‘what are my thoughts about technology and the future of the territory’ and I ended up talking about this book a lot. It fell in line with what Peter was thinking about for diversifying the USVI economy. I’m not a big techie at heart per se, but I just knew that there were too many opportunities in the USVI. This book and having that conversation with Peter around the fact that industries have to change in the territory is what mattered.
I love agriculture. I love the fact that we're so connected to our environment. I love the fact that we cherish land so much here, but at the same time, we’ve been reliant on the refinery for over sixty years now, and we’ve been reliant on the tourism industry, and they’re not resilient. We’re so far behind everybody else, and we’re not at a point in our history to be left behind, we just cannot afford it.
I understood Peter’s strategy and the fact that he thought it was essential to have Virgin Islanders on board. I enjoyed the fact that he leaned on us for advice, and as a young person, it meant a lot that my opinions were valued and that he was also leaning on me because I was a Virgin Islander, and I knew my community.
How does your background in storytelling, through sociology, journalism, and filmmaking, connect with your work here in the USVI?
By nature, I'm a good listener, and I connect with people’s stories as if they're my own. I consider myself a very expressive person too. The introvert in me likes to listen to take in people’s stories and what they’re feeling. Everyone is different. Everyone’s cultures are different. All of those things are interesting enough to be told. You can learn a lot from a person, from a group, from a community, from a culture because all of that is interesting the little stories.
Through the whole process of doing the thesis project on calypso music here, I felt it was important for the Territory to have that. My thesis did not get published, but it’s recorded and at the Sociology department at the University of Chicago that this work was done on this community. I wanted that project to be done for the US Virgin Islands because we are a small community, and I’m always looking for stories on the ‘little’ people who are just as interesting as the bigger people that get more stories.
Storytelling is essential, especially when explaining complex topics. How do you explain the concept of “economic development” to stakeholders and dispel their assumptions?
I always come from the point of understanding their assumptions first. I don’t pretend to be someone who knows more. I always go into a situation wanting to know all angles first. That part of me comes from the training I got from journalism; you have to be a truth-teller even if you don’t necessarily like or agree with what the truth is. Anytime I approach the community it’s coming from a place of, before I can say what is best for a community I need to know what the challenges are, I need to know where everybody’s coming from.
With that being said, our community is so dependent on just a few industries for our survival: tourism, the refinery, and the government (a significant job creator), and that’s it. These industries, though they've done so well for us for so long, cannot be resilient. We’ve encountered the same blocks repeatedly for the past decades and always end up coming to this conversation about how to move past this. There’s a conversation, but no action.
I know that our community needs jobs and opportunities, and there’s only so much ground that the industries we have right now can cover. I know that we have many challenges that tourism can’t solve, we have a lot of challenges that the refinery can’t solve and challenges that things like the refinery are creating. We live in one of the most beautiful places on the globe. We have to think about ways that the work we do here can support the community and preserve the community and our island, which comes around to sustainability. If we’ve been doing the same thing over and over again for decades without a result means whatever we are doing is not working. So why not bring in new opportunities? We have a whole generation of people who live on technology, that’s their language, but we’re not incorporating ways to speak with this language that they know at home. We’re not.
So economic development means being open to new ideas. It means being risky, risk sounds like a bad word, but it’s not, it doesn’t have to be. At our Business Attraction Summit last year, the keynote speaker from Facebook, named Dion Bias, gave a speech about change and about how change can be such a scary thing, but it also means that you’re opening yourself to new opportunities and things that could be good. We are sometimes so resistant to change, and that’s a natural reaction to have, but the successful tech companies of the world didn't get where they were because they were afraid to take that big leap. We have so much talent here that if we were given the opportunity through economic development, our opportunities and successes are endless. You know that there is so much talent in your community, so many people from the community doing amazing things abroad that just to allow them to come back home and take risks, we would see such a significant change here.
What do you think are the most critical aspects of the RTPark’s continuing and future work?
Sustainability is so important, and it's in the legislative mandate that created the RTPark. Sustainability means preserving or advancing your community in a way that protects the community but allows for growth for generations to come. As an island community, we are at most risk for climate change, so when you think about things like rising sea levels, hurricanes, and warming waters, we will be impacted first.
We’re such a small community with a small population and are also geographically small, making it even clearer that we’re too precious to lose. The Territory’s culture and history are important, so I feel an intense need to preserve the people, and the physical environment and the fact that that’s a part of the RTPark’s mandate is important to me. I’m confident that our long term goals around sustainability will happen, and I am proud of the new programs we have built in the past two years. Through our work, I hope that we’re encouraging people to be entrepreneurs and be in control of their livelihoods. Your life doesn’t have to be only on the 84 square miles that we live anymore. Technology makes your home so much bigger than that; you can be connected and rooted where you were born and raised and still access all of the excitement, opportunity, and success through tech. Entrepreneurship, for me, is a vital tool to take our community to the next level. I want people to understand that being a business owner here doesn’t mean that you’re limited to just your population. That's where I see the RTPark having a critical role in the future, encouraging and inspiring people to be global entrepreneurs.